Wednesday, July 07, 2010

album of the day: Speak No Evil

Wayne Shorter emerged as a vital jazz composer and saxophonist in the mid-60s, in particular in a series of albums recorded for Blue Note. Speak No Evil, the third of these, carries forward a new approach to jazz composition, and to a certain extent performance, that for me is always simply "Wayne Shorter."

In part, that's because, as distinctive as his music is to me, it's also difficult to express. I'll start with positioning him in modern jazz, and see how that goes.

If we take the transition to Bebop as the start of modern jazz, then we can trace out lineages of "cool," "hard bop," each taking aspects of Bebop and working out their musical ramifications. Hard bop, for example (which I adore), took mainly the riffs of Bebop as building blocks for a funky, rhythmically driven, very macho, muscular jazz.

By the mid-60s, "free jazz" and whatever one might call what Coltrane was doing then, were carving out their territories, in marked contrast to, or even belligerent opposition to, earlier genres. For instance, rejecting the quartet and quintet set-ups, and fairly predictable header-solos-coda pattern of hard bop in favor of something more like chants or more like traffic accidents (sorry, but free jazz sometimes sounds like a traffic accident to me).

Meanwhile, Shorter had spent his time playing with the very peculiar Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey's long-term working band, whose identity shifted with the coming and going of different musicians, musical directors, and composers. By the time Shorter was reaching his mature form, he'd really come up with a new approach to jazz, and the only thing I can think of that it resembles closely is late 1800's-early 1900s classical music, a lot of what gets called "Romantic" music. He always sounds more like Erik Satie or Jean Sibelius to me, than like the people he was most often compared to at the time: Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. There's no mistaking that this is jazz all the way down, and no mistaking the blues influence in Shorter's stuff, but he has a lyrical approach, and a rather broadly, orchestral concept.

This is sometimes blatant and avowed: "Dance Cadaverous" on Speak No Evil contemplates Sibelius' creepily pretty "Valse Triste," which Shorter, in fact, recorded himself some time later. Otherwise, it's a more subtle influence, a delicacy and elegance to his solo lines (and - this is the kicker - the solos he draws from the other musicians based on his compositions).

A noted characteristic of Shorter's playing - and, I would argue, one of his key influences on jazz since - is the varying of technique, timbre, and emotional tone. On this album, there's fairly aggressive start to the solo on "Speak No Evil," which settles into something more contemplative and searching; on "Infant Eyes," Shroter begins with a breathy, dreamy tone, then warms and continues in a sound that I think it's fair to call adoring (the tune is basically a tribute to his daughter).

During this same time period, Shorter began his reasonably long tenure with Miles Davis. While Miles was (of course) the leader of that band, Shorter was primary composer, basically the musical director, and also convinced Miles to hire, basically, Shorter's side men. And who wanted to play with the young Wayne Shorter back in 1964? Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. Nobody ever had a rhythm section like that. These guys completely changed what it meant to be a rhythm section. And I, for one, give some credit to Wayne Shorter for helping that happen, by way of his compositions. (Williams is not on Speak No Evil; that's Elvin Jones.)

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